I recently had drinks at Goldbar in Manhattan with that friend who always shakes his head. I tell him of my most recent exploits, my hopes and dreams, and he gives that quiet smirk as if to say, “you’re out of control.” Though well-meaning, his greatest gripe has always been that I prefer to travel alone – and while I no longer take the time to defend this position to him, perhaps it’s worth exploring further the reasons why solo travelers are not so crazy after all.
With blue eyes that suggest the ice age cometh and a taste for adventure that can’t be denied, my friend Nick is not a nay-sayer. While he occasionally finds my airport mishaps more amateurish than charming, Nick never stops me from embarking on another three month stint abroad or under-financed voyage of conquest. But he judges. Oh, how he judges. With traditional rationality and gentlemanly tendencies, he always poses the same question: “As a woman, how can you tolerate traveling alone? Don’t you feel unsafe? Lonely?”
Oh, do I ever. Unsafe, stupid, lonely, free, powerful, sophisticated. I feel it all.
I’ll never forget the first time that I left my parents behind at airport security. I remember putting on a good show as I bid my au revoirs and removed the liquids from my carry-on, but I was dying inside. In my hands sat a boarding pass to Milan, and a month of studying in Switzerland by myself. [As it would turn out, I met many fabulous creatures along the way - some of whom write for RSJ. Have you met Megan, Dana & Jeannie?] The thought of this opportunity now makes my heart jump, but at the time, I was a teenager and dumbstruck. There was no one to talk to at the boarding gate, Daddy was not there to carry my suitcase when my arms were tired, and I was still too young to pummel back a Stoli & Tonic to ease the pain. The silence was deafening.
So what is it about traveling solo that caught my heart, given such a rocky beginning?
My grandma once wisely quipped to me while recovering from a tough breakup that when we lay our heads on a pillow at night, we’re all alone. It doesn’t matter if someone is sleeping two inches from you. We close our eyes and revel in lonely thoughts — the dreams of paradise lost and affairs yet begun. Traveling alone evokes a similar surge–a fear of the dark, if you will–but it’s more tangible. We have to work through it. Falling asleep may be labored at first, but eventually we slip away into oblivion. Traveling forces us to dream with open eyes, and when we do it alone, we run the risk of confronting daemons.
Looking through the archives of this site, I find that many of my dear contributors write most poignantly about the experiences they had when they went as a party of one. While they met plenty of adopted family and close friends along the trail, the fact that they entered into the process solo made a huge difference in their take-aways. There is something so attractive about vulnerability. Freshness. When we don’t bother to take the baggage of our previous lives on the plane, we find that we leave room in our psyche for opportunity. I’m not trying to classify travel companions as baggage, by the way – sometimes they are perfectly wonderful. But sometimes they’re tethers, especially when we need them not to be. No one wants to sit anchored in the open water, yet that’s the situation your oft-complaining, asleep-by-9, culture-hatin’ buddy is capable of creating. No, grazie.
What are some of my worst travel memories to-date? Honestly, wasting time in beautiful places with people who didn’t jive. Many jetsetters can recall multiple horror stories with regards to bad roommates and all-out bitchfests at the airport. While I once sprinted the entirety of Moscow’s Domededovo to retrieve my lost Amex behind security, I can appreciate the fact that no one else nearly-missed their Siberia Airlines flight as a result.
I travel alone because I revel in the luxury of being twenty-two. Someday, there will be a toddler clinging desperately to my lululemon athletic pants as I attempt to drag him face-first to the boarding gate during a temper tantrum. Solitude is frightening, but it’s also rare. How often do you sit alone with your thoughts, relishing in the fact that no one can hear them but you? I try to do it everyday with a meditation, but I become particularly lax in that practice when I’m busy and need it most.
When you fly solo, you give your brain the chance to process what you see unfiltered. No, I shouldn’t say that. Filtered only by your experience would be more appropriate. You wake up unencumbered by someone else’s cell phone alarm, agenda and preferences. I remember a particularly wonderful morning sipping espresso in Barcelona as if it were the only thing to do on a Monday. I made small talk with the barista, glanced at BarçaTV, and did not bother to map a route to the Sagrada Familia. Oh, the tourist gods were angry with me that day. And yet, I cannot remember a time feeling more blissfully happy on vacation than that moment.
Women are especially afraid of traveling alone, and I can’t blame them. We’ve been warned about leering street vendors, targeted human traffic rings, and vile drug cartels. And we’ve all had the experience of unsuccessfully fending-off the unwanted attentions of a waiter chasing us down the street in Rome. Women attract attention wherever they go – and god forbid you’re young and pretty. Game over. But if you can get past those minor incidents, and prepare yourself with the proper information, nothing could be more thrilling than strolling down a street with no escort to guide you. Maybe Rick Steves in your back pocket, but that doesn’t count anyway.
It takes a rare breed to relish in flying alone. You throw your dice, hoping for a not-so-repulsive seat mate, a safe hotel, and a smooth connection. You handle your suitcases inspite of herniated disks, and fight your own battles. I salute you. The courage, freedom, and self-appreciation required to travel by yourself is something to be marveled at, and a privilege to be held in the highest regard until it’s no longer possible.
One day, you’ll look back on your youth and wish you hadn’t spent so much time worried about the fact that you were lonely.
In fact, you’ll regret all of the time you spent worrying period. So stop.
Book the flight, take a breath, and convince the Nicks of your life that everything will be alright.